Sonic Youth is not a band. It is an institution. Where other bands who manage to stay together for over a quarter of a century (or much less) become legacy bands (i.e., bands that are only known and revered for a part of their careers long past), Sonic Youth continue to push themselves and their fans into new and exciting territory with every passing year together. Lately there’s plenty of proof. In addition to a new record and a recent movie (both discussed below), there’s also David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century (Da Capo, 2008), Matthew Stearns’ 33 1/3 book on Daydream Nation (Continuum, 2007), and a forthcoming tour (I’ll be seeing them [again] on July 12th at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama).
Their latest dozen songs, The Eternal (Matador, 2009) — their first for Matador after a long stint with Geffen — is no exception to the experimentation and consistent limit-pushing. Their sound has always been thick, but the official addition of Marc Ibold (ex-Pavement, Free Kitten), who’s toured with them for the past few years, adds yet another layer, and legendary producer John Agnello (Jawbox, Fugazi, et al.) assisted them in the studio this time. It’s not all walls though. “Antenna” is alternately mellow and melodic, sparse and jagged, driving and droney. “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn” indulges Thurston’s punk fetishes before devolving into his signature screech. His and Kim’s disembodied vocals on “Anti-Orgasm” also hearken back to earlier, less tuneful times. Other songs, “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” and “Calming the Snake” for instance, recall “Candle” and “Kissability,” respectively, from Daydream Nation (Blast First, 1988). The Eternal (named after the Joy Division song?) is not the full-on energetic onslaught of that record or 2006’s Rather Ripped, but it does prove that Sonic Youth is still ripe with noisily good ideas.
Named after a line from the Sonic Youth song “Tom Violence” from EVOL (Blast First, 1986), Sleeping Nights Awake is a documentary/concert film crowdsourced to a group of Reno high school students through the non-profit Project Moonshine. Ali Alonso, Noah Conrath, Danielle Hauser, Charlie Hayes, Ben Kolton, Allana Noyes, and Nathan Lower were given three digital video cameras (Panasonic AG-DVC30s), training, and told to film the event. They ended up with ten songs from the July 4th, 2006 show in Reno and plenty of backstage, pre- and post-show banter from the band.
The students shot fifteen hours of black-and-white footage, and Project Moonshine founder Michael Albright edited it into the 86-minute Sleeping Nights Awake. I caught it at The Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin, Texas, and the results are stunning, if a bit unevenly paced. The ten songs captured are separated by backstage chatter, stalling the film’s momentum each time it really gets rolling. Chunking the songs and the candid bits more might have solved this minor flaw. Otherwise, the film is raw like a Sonic Youth film should be and beautiful like much of the noise they make. It also humanizes the members in a way that’s never been done. Even the New Kid Marc Ibold, and drummer Steve Shelley, who’s on camera backstage for a grand total of about five seconds, come across as personable members of the Sonic Youth family. None of that is to say that the members of Sonic Youth ever seemed inhuman, aforementioned “disembodied vocals” notwithstanding. It is to say that Sleeping Nights Awake does a damn good job of showing their many dimensions.
So, Sonic Youth might be ironically monikered these days, but their age doesn’t show in the youthful energy of their music and experimentation — shown in spades on The Eternal and Sleeping Nights Awake.
Here’s the trailer for Sleeping Nights Awake [runtime: 3:50]: